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14 February 2019

Women’s policy framework

In June 2018, the Ministry of Justice published their Female Offender Strategy which embraces the case for a specific approach to women, whose offending is more likely to be affected by domestic abuse, coercive relationships and unmet health and social care needs, and who are more likely than men to be primary carers of children. The strategy acknowledges that for these reasons outcomes for women in custody can be even worse than for men.

As part of the implementation of the Strategy, the policy document covering women in prison – Prison Service Order (PSO) 4800 Women Prisoners – has been reviewed and replaced by the Women’s Policy Framework.

This article summarises the changes.

The Policy Framework includes requirements and guidance about how women should be treated and supported not only in prisons but also in the community by probation services and courts as well.

The Policy Framework includes outcomes that Governors of women’s prisons should be aiming to achieve. Women should be held in “trauma-informed” conditions where they feel safe and which meet their specific resettlement needs. Staff working with women should be given training to give them a better understanding of women’s needs and circumstances. Women in prison should be able to access education, learning and skills provision, including in relation to parenting. They should also be able to access physical and mental health services that meet their needs. Prisons should also be working to identify and provide appropriate support to women who are at risk of or who have experienced domestic abuse, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation, sex work, human trafficking and other forms of abuse.

There are a number of measures included to help women meet challenges in relation to family relationships and childcare. While in prison, women should be given help and support to maintain family ties, and wherever possible be held in a prison which best enables them to do this. Prisons should have a ‘Family and Significant Other Strategy’ in place which explains how they aim to help women maintain these relationships. This should be made available to prisoners, staff and all visitors. There is more information about this in a recently published Strengthening Prisoners Family Ties Policy Framework, which also applies to men’s prisons and which we will write about in more detail in the coming months.

Support should be available for women who are separated from their children, including those experiencing loss or bereavement. Pregnant women and women with children under 18 months should be made aware of the benefits of Mother and Baby Units (MBU’s) and offered help to make an application if they want to. There is further information about this in PSI 49/2014 Mother and Baby Units. There is also a DVD that women could request to view in prison about what mothers should know if they are subject to imprisonment. As in the previous PSO, pregnant women should not be transported in cellular vehicle other than in the exceptional case that a healthcare professional has assessed it as acceptable.

Although much of prison policy and procedures detailed in current PSOs and PSIs apply to both men and women, there are some clear distinctions in practice, which the Policy Framework references. For example, searching procedures for women differ from those in the male estate, particularly in relation to a full search. PSI 07/2016 Searching of the Person sets out the differences, which we have also summarised in our information sheet on the subject. Similarly, women are subject to different Categorisation system than men, with only open and closed prisons within the estate. This continues to be covered by PSI 39/2011 Categorisation and recategorisation of Women prisoners.

There are some matters that were covered in the previous PSO but are no longer in the Policy Framework. Some of these are reasonably represented elsewhere because they apply to policy covering both the women’s and men’s estate. Others are more concerning in their absence. For example, the previous policy stated that women do not need to wear prison issue clothing, recognising that ‘part of the rehabilitation for many women prisoners involves the ability to maintain and raise self-esteem’. This is not included in the Policy Framework, due to change to policy was introduced in 15 November 2018 which means that all convicted prisoners, including prisoners in the women’s estate, must wear prison-issue clothing unless Governors decide some or all of their that the convicted prisoners in their prison can wear their own clothes as part of the IEP scheme. We are not yet aware of any change in practice as a result, but PRT will continue to advocate for the importance of women being allowed to wear their own clothing, and for any policy shift to extend this to the male estate as well – rather than the other way around.

If you would like a copy of the Women’s Policy Framework or any other documents mentioned in this article, or if you have any questions, please feel free to contact us using the details below.

Please note, the above article focuses on prisons in England and Wales and may not apply elsewhere.

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